This week was filled with excitement as I signed with Foreword Literary, a dynamic literary agency with offices in San Francisco, New York and Chicago. I had the joy of meeting and getting to know one of the agency founders, Laurie McLean, at the Big Sur Writer’s Conference in Monterey. Her enthusiasm and dynamic energy were a match for mine as we brainstormed ideas and exchanged backstories over coffee and dinner. After just a few minutes I knew this was an agent who fully understood the challenges ahead for the publishing industry, both from the indie side and from the legacy side.
“I’m from a tech and marketing background, so I think differently about books,” Laurie told me, her animated face shining with enthusiasm. “I see stories in all their forms, whether they are consumed on paper, via ereaders, in videogames, on the big screen, or on YouTube. We’re pioneering here, and I think the ‘hybrid’ model of selecting the best publishing medium for each project, be it self-publishing or traditional, is the way of the future. In fact, Foreword believes so much in this hybrid model, we predict most authors will become hybrid authors over the next five years. We’re here to show them how to make that transition.”
I couldn’t sign up fast enough! So I’d like to introduce Laurie McLean, “foreword” thinking agent extraordinaire, to all of you. She’s agreed to answer some questions about the hybrid model and other topics!
1) How is the role of agent changing in this volatile marketplace?
Just as the role of authors is changing because of disruptive changes brought about by digital publishing and social media marketing, agents must change the services they provide to authors to remain viable in this new publishing paradigm. In fact, we formed Foreword Literary to not only react to these changes swirling around us, but to help direct them and extend them to help everyone in the publishing equation. Agents do a lot more than simply brokering a book deal between an author and a publisher. There are subrights sales to think about, including contractual language that lets authors keep future rights that might not even be thought about much yet. There are projects that should be self-published, and an agency can assist with that (or not if the author is also very skilled in self-publishing like Toby is, or if the author has developed a support team to help them self-publish, again, like Toby has done.) There are careers to be built and growth managed. There is marketing to be done and author brands to be created. Savvy agents can do all these things. Professional networking is also valuable, and takes up a huge percentage of my day. If authors did all these things, they’d have no time to write. I like authors to think about hiring an agent as if they would hire any other professional business partner. Each of us have strengths and weaknesses but together we are mightier than either of us alone.
2) Your company publishes a line of books! And does Twitter Jeopardy with authors and readers! Tell us about these strategies and how they came about?
As I mentioned in the previous question, Foreword Literary is not satisfied with just reacting to changes in publishing. We want to BE THE CHANGE. So we’re experimenting with and exploring all types of new avenues to help our client-authors gain more awareness and make more money. One of these initiatives is FAST FOREWORD, which is our assisted self-publishing arm for shorter works of fiction and nonfiction. So far we’ve published nearly 20 titles, including a large poetry anthology wherein all the proceeds go to charity. #forewordjeopardy, the twitter game you were referring to in the question, is one of our social media marketing vehicles. When a client book launches, or for any reason, really, we put up 10 sequential “answers”, just like the Jeopardy game on television, and the twitterverse scrambles to provide the right question first, while including the hashtag. The prize is usually an ebook from the featured client. It’s a lot of fun and helps build an author brand. We also do #Ask4Word, a twitter event each week where writers can ask our agents pretty much anything. We also have an agency Tumblr account where we allow anonymous questions to be asked and we answer them. We are nothing if not creative, so I’m sure by this time next year we’ll have a whole bunch of new and exciting initiatives.
3) You live in a gorgeous, rural spot outside of the Bay Area. I live in Maui. Is New York even necessary anymore for the publishing world?
I guess that really depends on who you ask. We have agents in New York, California and Chicago. The Foreword agents who live in New York will tell you there’s nothing like grabbing coffee with an editor-friend, or meeting them all the time at publishing events…and there’s a lot of truth to that. But with email, phone, Skype, writers conferences all over the country, and amazing social media, I feel connected to the very same editors just as vigorously. Plus I would posit that we get more accomplished by being outside New York. Still, I visit New York twice a year to pitch editors on the latest and greatest from our clients, and I think that’s necessary for agents no matter where they hang their shingle.
4) What kinds of things can the right agent do for an already-successful indie author (such as myself) that we can’t do ourselves?
Agents can sell the existing subrights that all self-published authors still own: film, television, audiobooks, foreign deals, comic books, merchandise, etc. Agents can also create new subrights categories and mine those for deals: video games, apps, web series, YouTube channels, etc. Agents are great at helping authors understand where the markets are heading so they can plan a series that will sell a lot of copies. Conversely agents can steer authors away from an area that’s trending down into unpopularity. Agents are good business managers. A lot of agents edit their clients’ work. And we are great at vetting contracts. Plus it’s nice to have someone on your side in all situations where potential conflicts can arise.
5) Personally, I am thrilled to be a writer in the middle of the hurricane of “climate change” in the publishing marketplace. Tell us your “five year forecast” of what the marketplace holds for agents and authors?
I think you’ll see a real shakeout from the initial rush of authors to self-publish. Once the ego is satisfied that the author has a book published and available for sale, the reality sets in that you not only have to keep improving your craft, but you also need to do the dozens of associated tasks—from editing to polishing to formatting to posting to branding to marketing to sales—that take time away from writing. We feel that a hybrid approach will become the norm. Some projects will be too narrow in scope or outside what the author is known for, so self-publishing or teaming up with a small publisher might be the right fit for that work. Other projects might be better suited to traditional publishing. And some might go straight to video game or television series or app without ever having been a book first. Storytelling is the core, and how it is expressed will become more variable. That, to me, is a wild adventure I am so happy to be in the middle of. Five years from now many older or inflexible agents will have retired or changed to a job in another part of the publishing paradigm. Other agents will become more like Ari in the television show “Entourage”: career managers or business managers who are involved in many, many facets of their clients’ creative endeavors.
I strongly feel that now is the best time since the invention of the printing press to be an author. It is a true renaissance in creativity. And I am so happy to be in the eye of the tornado! –Laurie McLean
Note: Laurie is only accepting referral inquiries and submissions from writers she meets at conferences or requests via online events. Please query other Foreword agents with unsolicited submissions. (Boy, was it a good day when I decided to go to the Big Sur Writers Conference and pitch Laurie the minute I met her after hearing her talk on the agent panel! It was my second ever writing conference, almost a fluke I was there, and now I'm so glad I went!)